Tell Me You Love Me, Mom
There’s no denying that we live in a culture that expresses love through physical touch and affection, verbal affirmations, and other actions that would generally be considered demonstrative. Even those of us who have difficulty saying “I love you” tend to hold it as a goal. And if our love lives lack such gestures, we often feel like something’s missing.
As a Vietnamese-American psychotherapist, I know firsthand that this style of love expression isn’t necessarily the norm in other cultures; and most Asian patients I see, who are in their 20s and 30s, come in because they suffer from pain connected to their romantic relationships. Usually this involves anxiety, with underlying worries of being forgotten or feeling unloved during separation from their partners—whether it’s for just a few hours, an evening, or a weekend away.
When I inquire into their family history, I find a common theme: patients who have been raised by parents from a traditional culture have rarely—or never—heard them express feelings of love to their children. They didn’t hear “I love you,” they received few compliments when they did something positive, and loving touch and hugs were almost nonexistent.
My patients know intellectually that they are loved; the material signs are there. But they sense that something important is missing. It’s the words, and the hugs, that could help solidify their sense of being loved.
Is Not Feeling Love Really A Problem?
If someone knows they’re loved, even just intellectually, then what’s the problem? The answer lies in attachment theory. Adult relationship insecurity tracks back to how we were parented as children; if we were raised to trust our caregivers’ love and experienced them as consistently supportive—even during the hard times—we enjoy securely attached relationships later in life. Conversely, without internalizing a sense of trust or security—perhaps from emotionally avoidant or rejecting parenting styles—we grow into relationship insecurity and have to work to gain a sense of equilibrium.
This is consistent with recent research by psychologists at Temple University, who revealed that parental rearing behaviors, in particular rejection and anxious rearing, were positively associated with worry. So while a traditional upbringing could be considered secure attachment in one’s home country, where cultural notions of what makes for successful relationships are aligned with parenting styles, in a cross-cultural context—like in the United States, where varied displays of love are more typical—there’s a risk for insecure attachment among children who internalize mixed messages about love.
Mixed Messages Lead to Confusion
For example, let’s say that Linh is an 11-year-old raised by culturally traditional parents. She watches an American family TV show, Full House, where in times of conflict, the parent talks with the child; there is space for the child to share her thoughts and feelings; and once the child feels understood and the conflict is resolved, the child and parent hug and move on.
Now, this picture of love is very different from the image Linh has always had in mind, the kind that she’s received from her parents. But at the end of the day, it serves to raise internal confusion and uniquely cross-cultural conflict about what love actually looks like.
In such cases, the problem isn’t that traditional parents don’t love their children; it’s a cultural assimilation issue. Many American families carry this media/real-life dissonance too, of course, and yet in families where both parents and children have absorbed mostly similar cultural images, there is a less entrenched mixed message. So in cases of deeper cultural rift, it makes sense that my outwardly successful adult patients remain unsure of their parents’ love, and that they have anxiety about dating and creating secure bonds—especially if they’re dating cross-culturally.
Affection is Nourishing and Necessary
The other problem is that, as human beings, we need physical touch and affection to feel nourished and emotionally healthy. Many of us are familiar with Dr. Harry Harlow’s midcentury research on the attachment bonds of rhesus monkeys. For those that aren't, his studies showed that the presence of a soft, cloth-wrapped “mother” figure was more important to an infant monkey’s cognitive and physiological development than a wire “mother” holding a bottle.
In many Asian cultures, it’s considered normal to show your children love through one particular “love language”: by providing shelter, food, clothes and education. While all these things are important, in a culture that also values physical affection, this language gets lost in translation. As I’ve personally observed, when traditional parents are able to assimilate to a Western expression of love and can adapt to their child's exposure to it, the child grows up more securely attached. In order to grow, we need the nutrients of attachment as much as those from food.
For my patients (and the people who love them), it’s helpful to understand these cultural differences and the culture-bound values that shape our definitions of loving parent-child relationships. However, it’s also important to understand that for any of us to thrive, we must be aware of our basic human need to be touched, to feel connection, to be told that we are loved and wanted. Be honest—have you ever gotten sick of your partner saying they love you? And when you’re feeling anxious, doesn’t it usually help when your partner reaches out and holds your hand or sits next to you?
However it’s culturally defined, the truth is that love is universal. Our job is to help each other express it in ways that are mutually beneficial and healthy.